YourBlackHistory: Race Riots in North Carolina

The Wilmington, North Carolina Riot (1898)
By John Burl Smith

It is obvious that the historian must not be biased by any prejudices and
party tenets. Those writers who consider historical events as an arsenal
of weapons for the conduct of their party feuds are not historians but
propagandists and apologists. They are not eager to acquire knowledge but
to justify the program of their parties . . .They usurp the name of
history for their writings as a blind in order to deceive the incredulous.
Austrian economist and historian, Ludwig von Mises

Preceding more prominently publicized attacks on black communities by
white mobs in Atlanta, Georgia, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida, the riot in Wilmington, North Carolina was a coup d’etat that replaced the
city’s duly elected officeholders with white supremacists and banished
blacks from the town. Unparalleled in U.S. history, the legislature of
North Carolina created the Wilmington Race Riot Commission in 2000.
Introduced by Rep. Thomas Wright and the late Sen. Luther Jordan, their
legislation created a 13-member commission to initiate and review research by the Office of Archives and History in the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

During Reconstruction after the Civil War, the white gentry and business
classes merged across the South and began a reign of terror to reinforce
white supremacy. The Republican party as a whole mirrored the description of William Jennings Bryan in his 1890 addresses to blacks on “bloc voting” for Republicans. “It seems to me strange that this party, which claims tolove the colored man so well, fails to show its affection in any material degree. In the northern States there are 621,000 colored men. In many instances they hold the balance of power, but nobody ever heard of a colored man going to Congress from the north. The Republican party has taken the Negro for thirty years to an office door and then tied him on the outside. The Negro has bestowed presidents on the Republican
party—and the Republican party has given to the Negro janitor ships in
return.”

However, in Wilmington, North Carolina, the rise of black political power
through alliances between Republicans and Populists created a grassroots
political movement that led to a dramatic shift in power during the 1880s.
Beginning with the elections of 1894 and in 1896, white supremacy
candidates used intimidation and voter fraud to gain power. Democrats
stuffed ballot boxes and intimidated black voters to beat the splintering
Republican coalition on Nov. 8, 1898.

A Committee of Twenty-five (white men) was formed, and on Nov. 9, they prepared resolutions called the White Declaration of Independence. They presented the demands to leading black political and business leaders, known as the Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC). A pivotal demand to the CCC was that the community ousts newspaper editor Alex Manly, who
published an article in the Record, the city’s only African American
newspaper quoting white supremacist, Col. Alfred M. Waddell, who said, “We
will not live under these intolerable conditions. No society can stand it.
We intend to change it, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear
River with carcasses.” The CCC had until 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 10th to
respond. At 9 AM, a group of white men marched to the Record’s printing
office and burned the newspaper building to the ground.

A mob of up to 2,000 whites, inflamed by weeks of propaganda in newspapers and meetings of hate-filled rhetoric, roamed the streets, armed with
rifles and rapid fire machine guns, killing or wounding black men, women
and children. After three days of carnage, an estimated sixty to 100
blacks were dead. There was no white fatality. The Republican mayor, board

f aldermen, and chief of police were forced to resign. The Committee of
Twenty-Five replaced them and fired all black municipal employees.

LeRae Umfleet, a key researcher, found details at the Bellamy Mansion of a
court challenge of the Nov. 8, 1898 victory by John D. Bellamy, Jr.
brought by Republican congressional candidate Oliver Dockery. Trial
testimony offered insight into the riot and the period preceding the
political campaign. Umfleet was able to document the tense atmosphere of
violence and conspiracy to overthrow the duly elected government. She
unearthed the composition of the “Secret Nine,” a group of white
businessmen who orchestrated activities of two white supremacist groups,
the Red Shirts and the “White Government Union” clubs. Both groups
regularly marched through black neighborhoods brandishing weapons. Umfleet
secured letters from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., sent to
Pres. William McKinley from blacks and others asking for protection and
assistance before and after the riot.

The economic impact of the riot and banishment of Wilmington’s large and
prospering black community was a shift in the city’s demographics.
Afterwards, most blacks fled or were forced to leave Wilmington. The
report debunks the myth that the 1898 Wilmington race riot was necessary
to end government corruption and that the aim of the riot was not to
reestablish white supremacy and drive blacks from the town. Dr. Jeffrey
Crow, deputy secretary of the N.C. Office of Archives and History said,
“This research demonstrates unequivocally that the Wilmington Race riot
was not a spontaneous event, but was directed by white businessmen and
Democratic leaders to regain control of Wilmington.” (Sources:
www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc/ and www.ncculture.com)

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